Ann Killion
Tuesday September 7th, 2010

The Oakland Athletics didn't surface in the revenue sharing report leaked last month to Associated Press, which saved owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher a few days of embarrassment.

That top-secret information provided evidence how teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Florida Marlins reap millions of dollars by losing and keeping fans away.

The A's are certainly in the same situation, with the third-lowest payroll in the league and the second-lowest attendance. It would be a bit distasteful to have the details of their role as a baseball welfare recipient exposed, especially while Fisher's family has a fine art collection being shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ("Calder to Warhol," running through Sept. 19).

Fisher is a billionaire, whose vast wealth comes from the Gap. He and frontman Wolff continue to wait for Bud Selig's blue-ribbon commission to rule that they can move to San Jose because Oakland is an untenable situation. The panel was appointed 18 months ago but there's been no hint that it is close to a recommendation.

Wolff and Fisher -- who have been eyeing San Jose since they bought the team in 2005 -- would like you to believe that they've done all they can to make it work in Oakland, though boosting their team's payroll and adding pieces that could help fuel a serious playoff run hasn't been among their strategies.

Meanwhile, while the revenue sharing profits roll in and the fans stay away with depressing regularity, the A's are hanging around in the playoff picture. Though they struggled at the end of August -- thanks in large part to a four-game sweep at Yankee Stadium -- they appear destined to break their trend of finishing in the bottom of the AL West (3rd in 2007, 3rd in 2008, last in 2009). From their perch in second place, they remain within site of the Texas Rangers, seven games back.

"Weird things can happen," said catcher Kurt Suzuki on Monday, a day when the A's won and the Rangers lost their fourth in a row. The teams play one more series -- four games in Oakland -- later this month.

Exhibit A of weirdness is the San Diego Padres' swoon, which has caught the attention of every team still hanging around and nurturing postseason dreams.

The A's have hung around thanks to the strength of their young pitching staff. Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden are all among the league leaders in ERA. Brett Anderson earned a win on Monday with a four-hit outing against Seattle.

But the fifth man in the rotation is the odd man out. The A's sent starter Vin Mazzaro down to Triple-A on Monday -- a backward move at a time when most teams are expanding their rosters with September call-ups. Mazzaro got in trouble on Sunday, giving up a two-run home run on a 3-0 count to the Angels, and manager Bob Geren was clearly exasperated.

"He needs to improve his command," said Geren, whose team has an off-day and may choose to skip a spot in the rotation.

The move -- not willing to risk another bad start by Mazzaro in these critical days in September -- leads an observer to believe that the A's think they're a contender. But they're a hard team to figure out. The A's were in virtually the same position at the July trade deadline and clearly in need of some offensive help, yet chose to do nothing. General manager Billy Beane was happy to uncharacteristically sit on the sidelines and do nothing.

Whatever happens this season, the A's pitching would seem to be laying a strong foundation for the future. However, don't ask the dwindling A's fan base to get too excited about that. They've already seen two versions of a foundation-worthy rotation dismantled and sold for parts before it reached its full potential: Mike Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito in the early 2000s; Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Rich Harden a few years later.

You'll excuse the fans if they don't believe they'll see this version of the A's lead the team to glory. For years, virtually every A's player that becomes a star is shipped out, leaving the fans without a draw to hook their interest. That strategy, as much as anything, has kept fans away from Oakland. Over the weekend --three day games in beautiful weather -- the team drew a total of 42,221. That's about 4,000 fewer fans than the Yankees average for one game.

The most excitement generated at the Coliseum this summer was when a Hollywood crew showed up to film exteriors for a production of Moneyball, based on the book by Michael Lewis about Beane's ability to work the big market/small market system. Brad Pitt, who will play Beane, generated a star power that is generally absent from the Coliseum.

The A's are still playing Moneyball. Low payroll, high revenue-sharing profits. With a few more pieces they could be making a serious run at the playoffs. But most of their energy is focused on an attempt to run out of Oakland.

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